In a unanimous judgment Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a faith-based foster care agency, saying the city of Philadelphia could not disqualify it because of its religious beliefs.  

The high court noted that Catholic Social Services has “long been a point of light in the city’s foster-care system” and that the agency simply wishes to be allowed to “continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.”  

Philadelphia officials had canceled the contract of the Catholic foster care agency, a familiar nonprofit in the city for more than 100 years, because it declined to assign foster children to same-sex couples.  

“The city’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or [acting] inconsistent with its beliefs,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion.  

The court held that the city government’s refusal to accommodate Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs “violate[ed] the First Amendment.” As a result of the ruling, the agency will be able to continue to serve children in accord with those beliefs.  

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the important work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home,” said foster mom Sharonell Fulton, who brought the case to the high court. “My faith is what drives me to care for foster children here in Philadelphia, and I thank God the Supreme Court believes that’s a good thing, worthy of protection.” 

The case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, began when Philadelphia forced Catholic Social Services either to certify same-sex couples as foster parents, in violation of the agency’s long-held religious beliefs, or to end its foster care ministry.  

The victory at the Supreme Court ensures that the agency may continue to serve children in accord with its beliefs, resulting in many more Philadelphia children being placed in a forever home.  

“It’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, who argued the case. “Today, I am grateful that the Supreme Court protected heroes of the foster care system like [Fulton], who gives of [herself] daily to care for children in need.” 

The Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment was a clear win not only for Catholic Social Services but for First Amendment advocates looking for a strong denunciation by the court of blatant religious discrimination by the city government.  

Even so, the court’s opinion was narrower than some advocates of religious freedom would have preferred.  

The Catholic agency had asked the Supreme Court to overturn Employment Division v. Smith, a problematic 1990 opinion that has restricted the free exercise of religion for decades. The court instead found that this case fell outside the parameters of Smith and declined to reexamine the precedent.  

The justices split 6-3 on whether the opinion in Smith should be overturned immediately. 

Roberts’ 15-page opinion, which declined to overturn Smith, was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Samuel Alito penned a 77-page concurrence, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, arguing that the court should overturn Smith.

Alito offered extensive textualist and originalist analysis of the Constitution’s free exercise clause, concluding that the “case against Smith is very convincing” because of how that decision “conflicts with the ordinary meaning of the First Amendment’s terms.” 

In a separate concurrence, Gorsuch noted that the court’s failure to address the old opinion hands the Catholic agency a rather tenuous win. As Gorsuch explained, that opinion allows governments to restrict religious exercise through laws that are “neutral” and “generally applicable.”  

In the Philadelphia case, the majority opinion found that the law in question contains a clause that made it not “generally applicable,” rendering the law’s restriction of religious freedom unconstitutional.  

Gorsuch noted that “with a flick of a pen, municipal lawyers may rewrite the city’s contract” to remove the problematic clause and make the law generally applicable.  

If this happens, Gorsuch said, the Catholic agency will find itself “right back where it started,” in danger of being shut down by the government and in a new round of litigation. For this and other reasons, Gorsuch supported Alito’s recommendation to overturn Smith.  

The opinion issued Thursday also is noteworthy for its inclusion of a concurrence by Barrett. The Philadelphia case, argued in November, was one of the first cases Barrett heard after becoming a Supreme Court justice in October.  

Because of Barrett’s short tenure on the court so far, she has had little opportunity to opine on religious freedom issues.  

In her concurrence, Barrett said she finds the textual and structural arguments against Smith “compelling,” but expressed hesitation about immediately replacing that 1990 opinion because of the “number of issues” there would be to “work through” if the high court overruled it.

However, Barrett’s opinion, joined by Kavanaugh, expressed openness to revisiting Smith in the future.  

Although the court did not overturn the 1990 decision, as many religious freedom supporters had hoped, First Amendment advocates will be heartened by justices’ strong condemnation of government-sponsored religious discrimination against faith-based entities.  

Smith detractors also will be encouraged by Alito’s thorough analysis of the flaws of the Smith opinion, which could create a road map for the court to follow to overturn that decision in the future. 

The new opinion points to a full-court commitment to require governments to respect diverse religious beliefs, including the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, as required by the First Amendment.  

As Roberts wrote: “So long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.”  

The court’s clear and unanimous order to state, local, and federal governments to respect the diverse beliefs of all Americans not only is a win for religious foster care agencies, but for people of faith and those whom they serve across the nation.   

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